writer noticed the house on her morning
walks to campus. She wondered who had
lived there, what stories were undoubtedly
contained within. A friend told Valerie
Yow that the house once belonged to Betty
Smith, and really, someone someday ought
to write a book about it.
Lifting a writer-to-be
One writer’s development can be
shaped by the shade of another’s blooming.
Daphne Athas ’ 43, novelist and beloved
lecturer in UNC’s creative writing department for more than 40 years, knew Betty
Smith from the time Athas was a girl as
young as Francie Nolan. She and Smith’s
daughter Mary were best friends.
NORTH CAROLINA COLLECTION
As a student at Carolina, Athas aspired to
be a writer like Louisa May Alcott or Carson McCullers. What she saw up close was
Betty Smith — a woman who wrote but
also smoked and ironed her children’s clothing. A woman so not intellectual and so
marked by poverty that she panicked when
someone stole her bag of groceries at a play.
Betty Smith showed her that good writers,
like seeds, come in unexpected forms.
Retired from teaching in 2009, Athas
still lives in Carrboro, still writes and still
helps young, talented writers find their
way. That is the legacy Smith left her.
“She presented me with something in
real life, something that didn’t equate with
what I thought of bookish life,” Athas said.
After Tree came out, Athas said, for
months no one in town seemed to talk of
anything else. The young woman watched
from close range as Smith’s life changed:
Out with Bob Finch, in with Joe Jones;
the daughters’ reaction to fame, the purchase of the big house, the way people
called Smith nouveau riche. There was
Southern snobbishness and literary snobbishness, and undoubtedly Smith’s keen
eye saw it all. Athas and her friends, who
had considered Smith a Depression hack,
wondered whether they’d not been smart
THE UNIVERSITY OF NORTH CAROLINA AT CHAPEL HILL
8 AUGUST 2012 – 6 JANUARY 2013
Ikko Tanaka, Japanese, 1930–2002: The 5th Sankei Kanze Noh, 1958; color screen print. Merrill C. Berman Collection.
© Estate of Ikko Tanaka.